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Underneath the iceberg: Disordered eating affects more people than you see

Updated: Jun 16, 2019

There are many different types of eating disorders. In the running community alone, eating disorders can take shape in non-stereotypical ways.


As opposed to the shy, self-conscious girl who doesn't take care of her body and covers up in baggy clothes, runners have determined mindsets; willing to do whatever it takes to achieve a desired outcome and push their body to the limits. They wear spandex, short shorts, and sports bras as attire and they flaunt it because their bodies are proof of their hard work and identity as a runner.


Despite support and resources for diagnosed eating disorders, the support for eating disorder prevention tends cease once a team of performance-driven individuals lace up. Mindsets focus on pushing one's bodies, feeling the pain, and seeing the mile splits get lower and lower each week.


In general, people shy away from addressing obvious warning signs, and the term eating disorder becomes scary, dirty and sinful. Many runners deny problems and go out of their way to prove they are still running happy and healthy. There's shame and embarrassment tied to eating issues. And instead of calling a teammate's bluff to address the problem, friends and teammates turn to questioning whether or not they should also be eating less, cutting back, or dropping weight. A contagious cycle of negative thoughts and behaviors, fueling each other's disorders.


Please hear me correctly, eating disorders are NOT sinful and its nothing to be embarrassed about. But far too often, perception is mistaken as reality. If one is running, its assumed they are healthy. And the eating disorder conversations are left for people who are already at a recovery center.


But there are more people with signs and symptoms of disordered eating running around the track than there are formally diagnosed or in a recovery treatment center.


It's like the tip of the iceberg metaphor:


People with diagnosed eating disorders are the chunks of ice you see above the water. Their problems have surfaced, and they are actively seeking help. There are eating disorder support groups and resources for these people.


But that floating chunk of ice isn't' alone. Underneath the ocean's surface is a huge iceberg below it completely unseen. People stuck in this iceberg have all the same problems, issues, concerns, but since they're still running, their issues are hidden. It's a different type of eating disorder: an "un-diagnosed" or "not fully identifiable" form of disordered eating. Since they haven't surfaced above water, and these runners are not getting the eating disorder support they need.



My goal of this article is to show you how big that iceberg under the water is...

And to start the discussion to provide support and resources to the thousands who show signs and symptoms of different types of eating disorders...

And perhaps, we can actually prevent or mitigate eating disorders, instead of only treating the ones that surface.


[I've taken most of these statistics from The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting people and families affected by eating disorders of all forms. More information about NEDA is included at the end of this article.]

1 out of every 3 female athletes in Division 1 NCAA report attitudes and symptoms defining them as "at risk" for anorexia.

Johnson, C. Powers, P.S., and Dick, R. Athletes and Eating Disorders: The National Collegiate Athletic Association Study, Int J Eat Disord 1999; 6:179.


Whether they develop a clinically significant eating disorder or not, this still means that 1 out of every 3 college female athletes need help.

....1 out of every 3 do not have a healthy mindset about food, diet, body image

...1 out of every 3 may be limiting their potential as an athlete

...that 1 out of every 3 could tip the wrong way and dive head first into a full-blown eating disorder at any moment, ending their career and forever changing the course of their life.


In weight-class and aesthetic sports disordered eating occurs at estimates up to 62% of females and 33% of males.

Sport Nutrition for Coaches by Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, 2009, Human Kinetics. Byrne et al. 2001; Sundot - Borgen & Torstviet 2004

Remember that 1 out of 3 I just spoke about? Now when you are looking at a weight-class or aesthetic sport (think: running, swimming, diving, gymnastics, dancing, bodybuilding, wrestling, rowing, equestrian, horse racing)..... double it for women. It's essentially 2 out of every 3. But keep looking past the women and we add in far more men than most people want to believe.


Up to 41.5% of high school female athletes participating in aesthetic sports reported disordered eating.

Jankowski, C. (2012). Associations Between Disordered Eating, Menstrual Dysfunction, and Musculoskeletal Injury Among High School Athletes. Yearbook of Sports Medicine, 2012, 394-395. doi:10.1016/j.yspm.2011.08.003


Yes, even at the young age of high school, nearly half of a female cross-country team may be internally struggling with eating.


These athletes are up to 8x more likely to get injured, and twice as likely to incur a musculoskeletal injury.

Jankowski, C. (2012). Associations Between Disordered Eating, Menstrual Dysfunction, and Musculoskeletal Injury Among High School Athletes. Yearbook of Sports Medicine, 2012, 394-395. doi:10.1016/j.yspm.2011.08.003